ne thing a college basketball team does not want to do is to make an art form out of losing games.
But after a promising beginning that seemed to hold even more promise ahead, that's exactly what the UMass season has appeared to come down to. The Minutemen (7-7, 1-1 in the Atlantic Ten Conference) have been losing every which way possible: playing soullessly (to Boston College, down in Puerto Rico); playing hard and well against a good team but still falling painfully short (vs. Southern Illinois); on a fluke shot with the clock running out (vs. Providence); and playing inexcusably carelessly in their conference-opener at home, to mediocre St. Bonaventure (70-60).
Still, say one thing for the Minutemen: they're entirely unpredictable. Just when they start to look real good (wins over B.C., Villanova, and Florida State), their game goes south with a bang. And just when things begin to look hopeless, they come up with the unexpected big win, seemingly out of nowhere.
Which is exactly what they did, winning 82-52 at home against not-bad Fordham last Saturday, evening their conference record at 1-1. This was a win that may have salvaged their entire season.
For now, anyway.
But will this rousingly one-sided victory mean something for the long run? With this UMass team, even coach Bruiser Flint can't quite be certain. "I'm just gratified we played so well today," the exasperated mentor said after the team's devastating destruction of Fordham. "Maybe we're getting closer to gaining some consistency to our game. There were signs I really liked."
Coach Flint must have loved the beginning of the second half in particular. After building a 31-21 lead by halftime based on some tough defense, UMass exploded for an impressive 14-2 run at the beginning of the second stanza to pretty much wrap things up. And they did that while being led by a struggling backcourt, facing what many experts feel is the best backcourt in the conference.
UMass actually held highly-regarded Bevon Robin (2-8 field goals, 8 turnovers) and Jason Harris (2-9 field goals) completely in check while amassing 32 points from its own starting backline. The team also had 16 assists against just 11 turnovers, the first time those numbers were on the positive side of the ledger in a long, long time.
Besides the great defensive effort, Monty Mack (22 points), Shannon Crooks (10 points, 4 steals), and third-guard Jonathan DePina (8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals) all played their best all-around games in quite a while against Fordham. Up front, power forward Chris Kirkland was somewhere on the north side of outstanding (21 points, 5 steals) as well.
What a difference this was from the St. Bonnie's game! In that one, the backcourt was beyond awful, "leading" the team to an unbelievable total 3 assists (!) and 16 turnovers. One must add that any self-respecting point guard can get 3 assists all by himself in about five minutes in any college game.
The defense, equally woeful, allowed 52.5 percent shooting in the first half (50 for the game), while UMass couldn't find the hoop with a compass (34.4 percent from the floor). The Minutemen' free-throw shooting (13-25) was beneath the pale as well – but they have that problem consistently, even in their good games (14-33 v. Fordham). And it's a problem they must somehow deal with, as it will cost them a number of close games.
And UMass, at 7-7, can not afford to lose many more close games. Or any games. The Atlantic Ten Conference appears even stronger, and better-balanced, than it was believed in the early season: Xavier has already beaten No. 1 Cincinnati, while Dayton conquered Kentucky as well. Temple, of course, still appears to be the best team in the conference, and most of the other teams – even Duquesne and LaSalle – have proven themselves capable of upsets, at the very least.
Given the power structure among the conferences and the parity among all the teams around the country, the Atlantic Ten will most likely get no more than four NCAA bids in March. With Xavier, Temple, and Dayton seemingly assured of spots so far, UMass doesn't have much margin of error left at this point if they are to make it to the tournament.